V-E Day plus-60: 'Little red schoolhouse' in France had a great view of history
REIMS, France — Marc Bouxin was on his cell phone, answering yet another call, switching mid-conversation from aristocratic French to uncertain English.
As he tucked away the phone, Bouxin smiled and said in English, “Sweden.”
Bouxin, curator of the Musée de la Reddition — or Surrender Museum — was getting calls from everywhere during the final weeks leading up to Reims’ 60th Anniversary of Victory in Europe Day celebration.
On the other end were mostly journalists making arrangements with the man in charge to attend the museum where World War II in Europe ended May 7, 1945.
Most of the time, it’s not like this, said Bouxin, a cultivated yet unaffected Frenchman. Most of the time, his little museum needs all the attention it can get.
The Surrender Museum, like the end of the European war itself, is a bit anticlimactic. It is in a sleepy corner of Reims next to the city’s main railway station, and usually is not a big draw, especially compared to D-Day and Battle of the Bulge museums in France, Belgium and Luxembourg. It’s essentially one room — Room 119 — where German Col. Gen. Alfred Jödl (distractingly referred to by his middle name “Gustav” in museum documents) — surrendered to Allied officers including U.S. Lt. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s chief of staff.
It took only 17 minutes to end the six-year war, leaving Bouxin and the city of Reims precious little to build a museum around. That’s not to say there’s not enough here to warrant spending an afternoon, as Bouxin and crew have made the most of what they have.
A simple room
Just being in the preserved room is fascinating — the smell musty, the low-tech gadgetry resembling movie props. And it’s somehow satisfying to imagine the arrogant Jödl — hanged a year later at Nuremberg for war crimes — at the table, ironically asking Smith and the Allies for humane treatment of the German people.
In the hallways leading to Room 119, there are photos and displays enough to keep visitors busy. If there is a theme, it’s jubilation — the ecstasy of final victory in the faces of ordinary people who survived the carnage, even normally stoic officers such as Eisenhower.
The long table where representatives from Admiral Karl Dönitz’s post-Hitler government sat across from Smith and Russian, British and French representatives, is still mostly as it was when Jödl signed the surrender document four times. This was Eisenhower’s final wartime headquarters, and still on the walls are all the war-room maps, operations rosters and casualty counts documenting the Allies’ relentless march into Germany, as well as updates from the Pacific.
But the table and war-room effects are behind a huge glass partition. And while viewers are supposed to use a small plaque to divine who sat where, the plaque is vague to the point of uselessness, Bouxin conceded.
Bouxin, master of the Gallic shrug, raises his shoulders and eyebrows when pointing out how there need to be improvements. And indeed, he and his small staff appear to be in the process of toning down the Franco-centric nature of the museum, which gives unwarranted weight to the role of Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s Free French forces. Though French Resistance contributions were important, de Gaulle contributed a grand total of three divisions compared to 90 U.S. Army divisions activated during World War II.
Few of the museum displays are in any language but French. A 12-minute film about the museum and the surrender has some English narration, but also long segments of Bouxin speaking French.
Bouxin said he is working on revisions, including more explanations in English. In early April, he and his staff were assembling a new exhibition room, going through photos, uniforms and memorabilia donated by American veterans. Most of the photos are courtesy of Albert Meserlin, the official Army photographer at the surrender. However, the new room will not be open by the anniversary weekend.
If there is anything compelling about Reims at the 60-year mark, it’s the ordinariness of it all — which apparently wasn’t enough for some reporters of the time.
Thomas Cadett, the British Broadcasting Corp. reporter at the signing, described it as “carried out on a cold and businesslike basis.”
To add some color, reporters played up the surrender being signed in “the little red schoolhouse,” Bouxin said, smiling. It’s a myth. In reality, the museum was — and is — in a bland brick building, a small section of a large technical university, and the university is still very much there.
“We are a slave to the school,” is how Bouxin put it, followed by another shrug. Even if he had the means, he’ll never have space to expand.
A surrender of ego
The Germans came to the school — then Eisenhower’s headquarters — in a vain attempt to avoid surrendering to the Russians, who were leveling Berlin and had orders from Soviet leader Josef Stalin not only to pillage Germany’s industrial infrastructure, but also to settle the score for Germany’s savage 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. Dönitz, president after Hitler’s April 30 suicide, tried to delay the inevitable, hoping as many German soldiers and civilians as possible would make it to the areas occupied by the United States, Britain and France.
The Russians worried that the Reims surrender might apply only to the commanders present, and allow the Germans to go on fighting Russian armies to the east. Hence the second, slightly different surrender signed May 9 in Berlin.
If the museum narrates a great story, it’s about ego, and lack of it.
When the theatrical Gen. Douglas MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender on Sept. 2, 1945, he did it on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri, which made for a very dramatic stage.
By comparison, Eisenhower refused to even attend the German surrender, partly because of Dönitz’s stalling tactics, and partly because Jödl — chief of operations staff — was not of equal rank, and Eisenhower feared he’d seize the access to issue new demands, Bouxin said. Instead, Ike came down minutes after the signing for the famous photo of him making a V for victory with the pens used for the ceremony.
Photos of Jödl arriving to surrender show a man bereft of all humanity, still haughty and superior in his fresh, ostentatious uniform. The victorious Americans look like who they were — ordinary men simply relieved to be finished with war.
One of the documents that will go on display in the new hall is Eisenhower’s declaration to the people of Reims. The declaration — only in French, for the moment — dwells not on war, but on efforts to ensure an orderly transition to peace, exhorting citizens to prepare for elections to “select the government of your choosing.”
On the morning of the surrender, Eisenhower’s soldiers’ natural affinity for order broke down just a bit, according to Bouxin.
As soon as the surrender was signed, nearly everyone present started grabbing everything in sight for souvenirs, he said.
A few years ago, an elderly American man walked into the museum and slowly took out something wrapped in a handkerchief, Bouxin said. The man asked to go to the table in the war room, where he looked around for a moment. “Then he said, ‘Ah, Spaatz!’” Bouxin recalled, and pulled out a small enamel ashtray, placing it in front of the nameplate marking where Gen. Carl Spaatz, commander of the Strategic Air Force in Europe, sat all those years before.
Then the man casually walked out.
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Major players in the surrender
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces, was not at the surrender ceremony itself. Eisenhower went on to become the 34th president of the United States.
Gen. Col. Alfred Gustav Jödl, Germany’s chief of operations staff, signed the surrender, the only person authorized by the post-Hitler government of Admiral Karl Dönitz to make the unconditional surrender. Jödl was hanged in 1946 at Nuremberg for war crimes.
Lt. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, signed the surrender for Eisenhower. Smith later became (among many government assignments) commander of the U.S. 1st Army, U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union and head of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Admiral Sir Harold M. Burrough, Allied naval commander, became the British naval commander in chief, Germany.
French Gen. Francois Sevez, who signed the surrender as a witness for the French Provisional Goverment.
— Terry Boyd